Jason Berry is the first to admit that he didn’t know quite what he was in for when he hatched a scheme to create a documentary at the 2009 Tour de France. A former competitive mountain biker and budding filmmaker, Berry had already created two films, Off Road to Athens and 24 Solo, but his decision to take his craft to the next level by diving headlong into the Tour de France began a roller coaster ride that tested his limits more than he could have ever imagined.
The Chasing Legends project started only months before the Tour when Berry pitched his idea to producer Ken Bell and the two pooled their money for a shoestring budget. Despite a quick start, meeting the HTC-Columbia team at the Tour de Suisse, Berry would just as quickly learn that making a film at the Tour de France requires a lot more than team access. The owners of the Tour, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), guard the broadcast rights to the race fiercely, and to sell anything “Tour de France” requires a substantial financial commitment. Berry and his crew spent nearly half of their total budget with ASO, but they knew that without ASO’s blessing and invaluable race footage, the film would go nowhere.
Access to the team presented its own challenges, notwithstanding the enthusiasm from Stapleton and the High Road management. Sprinter Mark Cavendish became perhaps the central figure in the film, which was logical given his incredible tally of six stage victories, but the entire team and its staff are given the attention worthy of anyone who rides or works throughout the three week tour.
“I wanted a film about the Tour itself, as seen through the eyes of HTC-Columbia,” Berry told Peloton. I knew the basic storyline would be the Tour and its history but I stressed daily over the start, finish and character development. What made our film a documentary as opposed to a highlight video was that we could rarely do things over, get a second take, set up a shot, wait for lighting or weather to get better. We had only minutes with each athlete to do their interviews. It was all or nothing when they were ready.”
Berry also came to understand that a warm welcome prior to the Tour did not translate into an all-access pass in July. He had met the team in Switzerland and tested filming techniques, spoken with riders, and gotten to know the team staff. When the Tour kicked off in Monaco, however, it was almost like starting from scratch.
“When I showed Cavendish some test footage at the end of the Tour de Suisse, he was really into the bike cam stuff,” Berry said. “He was very excited and gave me a big hug when I left. Two weeks later when I showed up at the Tour de France it was a different Cav. Total game face. He was already sick of the media and lumped us back in with all the other cameras in his face.
We intentionally stayed away from him at first to gain back his trust, Berry revealed. It took the entire Tour for him to warm up to me again.”
Creating a Story
Spending three weeks at the Tour de France filming is one challenge, while honing those three weeks of footage into a story line is another. Every Tour de France is full of drama, but Berry sought to create a documentary destined for an audience beyond die-hard race fans. To do so would require characters, emotions, and a flowing story, in addition to the sweeping scenery to which Tour viewers have become accustomed.
Patience and sensitivity to the riders paid off, as stone-faced Cavendish eventually let his softer side through in post-race interviews and provided valuable insight into not only his racing, but also his emotions and personal observations over the course of what was an undeniably successful outing in which he was more often than not the center of attention. Other riders, out of the limelight, were more welcoming throughout the Tour and allowed Berry and his crew to shoot invaluable footage. Bernhard Eisel and Maxime Monfort rarely complained about cameras being mounted on their bikes or following them to the dinner table.
“There were a few days when we had a camera on Bernie’s bike but it didn’t work or it ran out of battery life before the big descent,” Berry admitted, underscoring the technical challenges of making the film and maintaining goodwill with the team. “He got pretty upset on those days, understandably, but he let us put a camera on his bike on the queen stage with five massive climbs. Not a complaint from him.”
While the film followed the HTC-Columbia team, Berry was keen to include other characters from the Tour, both inside and out. Jens Voigt, Eddy Merckx, Phil Liggett, and Paul Sherwen all added flavor to the narrative that developed through HTC-Columbia’s Tour experience. The staid insights of Merckx, revered as the most prolific cyclist ever, gave Berry a contrast to the excitable, enthusiastic ramblings of crowd favorite Voigt.
“Jens is so much more than his crash,” Berry said, referring to the German’s horrific nose dive on an Alpine descent. “I wanted viewers to meet him early and love seeing him onscreen. Some of his early comments grow a vibe about him so by the time he’s established and he crashes the audience is seeing a friend get hurt.”
“The truth of the matter is that the race goes on,” he insisted. “So the viewer has to go on, now knowing that at any moment there will be another crash. I’m learning how to build suspense and hold it, but you can’t hold it too long or play around too much. People have very low patience for what they expect.”
To hear Berry’s story of the making of his film is to hear a story of personal drive challenged at every turn by logistical, financial, and technical hurdles. At the heart of it all is the long-term risk of tackling such an undertaking without funding. The laundry list of budget woes Berry offered made clear the strain caused by the film and his insistence that there was no room for failure: budget of under $250,000, one liquidated retirement account, one remortgaged house, one small bank loan, four credit cards with differed interest.
“On a more positive note, a lot of people come out of the theater and shake my hand with vigor, look me in the eyes and tell me they loved the film,” he added. “I might be a quarter million in debt, but that’s still one hell of a paycheck.”
From day one in Monaco, Berry and his crew knew they faced a grueling three weeks of filming. Four guys in a rented RV with no air conditioning, a fire in the RV when Berry’s rain pants came in contact with a candle placed in the sink, mosquitos, power outages, broken locks on the RV bathroom, and the usual Tour stress of being on the go for three weeks straight all took a serious toll. Berry admitted to his own nervous breakdown during the Tour’s final time trial in Annecy.
“There is so much going on it was hard to keep thinking of the creative side – pushing for different angles, smoother shots of the same things – always trying to get the ‘genius’ out of each day,” Berry explained. “We didn’t have a team of shooters, directors, sound and lighting guys. One guy wrote, shot, directed, edited, directed the orchestral score and now is the only one who promotes the film. One guy with some part time help from a couple others along the way.”
Bad luck also provided for plenty of what if? moments.
“Look at that shot of Renshaw leading out Cav on the Champs Elyses, Berry told us. There is a camera mount under his bike seat but no camera,” Berry revealed. “It rattled off on the cobbles, hit the ground in front of Cav and as he said, it was like Star Wars, with bits of plastic flying everywhere.
“We tried, but we lost that footage,” he said with obvious regret. “That could have been something else.”
Eventually, though, the story came together long after the Tour had reached its end in Paris. After months of countless hours of editing, lining up appointments with Merckx, Liggett, and the oldest surviving Tour finisher, Pierre Cogan (tracking down Cogan and interviewing the 97-year old in France presented another set of headaches and challenges), Berry felt like things were finally going his way. A final interview with Cavendish at the end of the year was a turning point.
“The interview with Cav was one of the very last things I shot for the film, but the rains came in 10 minutes before our one hour with him began,” Berry recalled. “We rushed to our backup location, had no time to set up lights and barely got three cameras rolling by the time he sat down.”
“When we finished that interview I knew I finally had a movie with a story, but until that day in December 2009, I had nothing but fear and stress and doubt.”
“Documentary is the Latin word for stressful,” he joked. “I’m sure of it.”
Chasing Legends is available on DVD from Gripped Films (http://chasinglegends.com).